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Friday, June 27, 2014

Parties And Gift Giving In Panama—What To Give And How Much To Spend

Hello everyone, 

Last night I received an email from a reader and friend, asking a question that would probably stump most people moving here from a foreign land. How much should you give at a birthday party? She and her family just recently settled down in Panama, and already, her daughter was invited to a birthday party for a classmate.

If you don’t have kids, don’t worry, I’ll get to adult party gift giving a little later in this article. For now, let’s stick with the kids.

First, it’s important to know that in Panama, it’s very common for kids to have birthday parties at school. Where I come from, this would be forbidden. Sure, you might bring a gift for your best friend if you found out it was his or her birthday, but you'd never see an all-out fiesta. Here it’s totally the norm. And with four kids, it seems someone is always needing to take a gift to school.

What should you give at a party? 

With my sons, in Kindergarten (a class that’s mixed with Pre-K and has about 30 kids in the room), you can imagine how many birthdays take place. It seems there’s at least two a month, sometimes more often. Some school parties consist of just snacks, a cake, and canastitas (goodie bags), while some even include a piñata.

Speaking of canastitas, if you ever throw a birthday party here, whether in your house, at a party salon, or in school, you have to have canastitas. They’re expected. The kids will be very sad if they don’t receive one.

Goodie bags are a must in Panama  

So, when your kid is invited to a party, what kind of gift do you give, or how much should you give in cash or on a gift card? Most Panamanian parents will write on the invitation what they’d like to receive for their child. Here’s what you might see:
  • Lluvia de Sobres, which translates to “Rain of envelopes”. This means they’d like to receive cash. 
  • Talla 12 “Size 12,” or whatever size the child is, means they’d like to receive clothes.
  • GC might be written to mean gift card, or they’ll just write (or place a sticker) of the store they’d like to receive a gift card from. Poppy’s is a popular kids clothing store here, similar to a Gymboree. We’ve received several invitations with Poppy’s stickers on them. 
You never just see the word “toys” written on an invitation, or juguetes in Spanish. I’m old fashioned in the way that I usually buy a toy for the kid. Marlene and I argue about this all the time. She likes to stick with what the card says, but I remember being a kid and excitedly opening presents to find only clothes. It sucked! I just wanted a Transformer (or was it a Go-Bot?) or a new G.I. Joe action figure (never a doll, never!) or even a pack of freakin’ Garbage Pale Kid trading cards (those were awesome).

Who wants clothes? None of the boys do, I’m pretty sure. I doubt the kid is shouting over mom’s shoulder as she writes out the invitations, “Please, mom, not toys again…just write size 12!" 

The look on Nico's face would be totally different 
if this guitar had been a pack of underwear

Plus, I imagine all the other parents bringing size 12 clothes. All kids want at least one toy for their birthday. So, if I tick off a parent, but put a smile on a kid’s face, I think it was well worth it.

If you’d rather just give a gift card or participate in the rain of envelopes and give cash, this is the way it’s played out in Panama. You have to consider how much the parent is spending on the party. If it’s a simple house party or a party taking place at school, spending $10 on a gift or giving $10 cash (or gift card) should be fine.

If it’s a party at an expensive party salon, at Chuck-E-Cheese, or something like that, where you know the parents are spending quite a bit of money on each kid invited, it’s a good idea to spend/give at least $25. 

A party at this place in Punta Pacifica isn't gonna be cheap

Now, if we’re talking about a quinceaños (sweet 15), that’s a little bit different. A quince is a very important time in a young lady's life, practically as big a deal as a wedding. Imagine that TV show “My Super Sweet 16” with a little bit of salsa and tipico dancing thrown into the mix. Everyone dresses very formally (unless there’s a different kind of theme) and you should give at least $50. Really, anywhere from $50-$100, depending on your relationship with the girl and your level of comfort (income level). Aunts and uncles will probably give at least $100, maybe more. Friends of family will usually spend somewhere between $50-$80.

Back to kids’ parties. It’s probably a good idea to use this space to mention a few things you should be ready for if attending a birthday party in Panama.

1. Where is everybody? The party will usually start out empty. Being tardy is a Panamanian thing (sorry all my Panamanian friends, but you know it’s true). If you arrive at 2pm, the exact time printed on the invitation, don’t be alarmed if you’re the only guest there. People will show up, but probably at around 3 (or later).

2. Just pretend you know the song - Happy Birthday will be sung in both English and Spanish (this is very common in Panama, unless somehow you find yourself at an all-American or English-only party). So, during the Spanish version of the song, you’ll need to figure out something to do to make yourself not stick out in the crowd. Fidget with your camera, or bend down to fix your kid’s hair, haha.

Being the one behind the camera is a good way to camouflage yourself

Or, better yet, just learn the words to the Spanish version. Check out this Kidpats video we put together about birthday parties in Panama. During the singing of Happy Birthday, I added Spanish subtitles to help people learn. Check it out by clicking HERE.

3. You want me to do what? At Panamanian parties being animated by a clown or host, there's a good chance you'll get called out for a game. It happens to me every time. Gringos tend to be part of the entertainment sometimes. One host thought it was hilarious that I didn’t speak Spanish and kind of picked on me through the whole party.

Here I am, unwillingly participating

Honestly, at just about every party I’ve been to, I’ve ended up as one of the non-volunteering volunteers to play the games with the kids. 

Even at a baby shower (there where was beer 
in the bottle though, and I won, so it was all good)

If this happens to you, don’t get upset. Be happy to be included in the festivities. Just laugh it off and have a good time.

4. I’m starvin’ ova hea! Never go to a party hungry. Most Panamanian parties will include arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), plantains, potato salad, etc. At some you’ll find only appetizer treats. Usually, the food won’t be served until well into the party. This happens for two reasons. The first, as I mentioned earlier, most people show up late. Second, once the food is served (as with most parties anywhere) people start to disappear. So don’t go to a party thinking, “Oh I’ll just eat at the party.” Do yourself a favor and eat a little something before you leave the house. 

Moving on to adult parties. At an adult birthday party, you’d probably want to spend between $20-$30, unless it’s someone very close to you, then you can spring for a little more. Same goes for cash or a gift card. Here's a tip. With an adult party, you might want to go with a present so it’s not so obvious how much you spent. Unless, of course, you’re ready to give $50 cash, then I’m sure you’d look alright, lol. 

Weddings cost a lot, so it's polite to give a nice gift

Weddings are a lot like a quinces. Spending wise, you’d follow the same rules. One thing you need to know about weddings here, is it’s customary to give cash. It’s not like in the U.S. where people show up with gift wrapped toasters, blenders, and foot massagers. 

On a random side note (you know me and my tangents), Marlene and I once received a wedding gift that was re-gifted to us. How did we know? When we unwrapped it and opened the box, we found a beautiful card, wishing our friends the best of luck in their marriage. It was a note to them from the original purchaser. Apparently they’d never opened the gift and just passed it on to us. We had a good laugh and never told our friends.

Be ready to dance at weddings too!

Back to the wedding gifts. At all weddings in Panama, somewhere near the entrance to the reception, you should see some sort of envelope box, usually a fancy contraption with a slit at the top. Just put your cash-filled card there. 

On a final note, I’ve also received emails about dinner parties and whether it’s necessary to take a gift with you if invited to one. Panamanians are very fun-loving people and it seems there’s always a friendly get together, which means the hosts are spending money on food and drinks. 

So, the answer is yes, if you’re invited to a party at someone’s home, for whatever reason, it’s always nice to bring either a bottle of wine, or some sort of dessert. Just stop by the supermarket and grab an apple pie if you’re not sure what to bring. 

Or…the absolute best…pick up one of those chocolate cakes from the Rey supermarket, the ring shaped one. It’s one of the best chocolate cakes I’ve ever eaten. Love that thing. 

I'm talking about these chocolate cakes!

Man, now I need to go eat some more sugar-free Jello (they really need to make Rey-supermarket-chocolate-ring-cake-sugar-free Jello). Seriously. 

Well, I think that about covers it. As always, I invite readers to write in with their comments and anything I may have missed.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Taking the Plunge and Finding Happiness as an Expat in Panama

Let me start this article by saying that I don’t mean to get all emotional on you again. You’re probably thinking, “First the dating, then the battling depression, now finding happiness? Chris, for cryin’ out loud, go seek therapy. Call your psychiatrist friend, Juha!”

Fair enough, but I got the idea for this subject last week when my son, little Matteo, was sick and I had to take him to a clinic. While in the waiting room, a very nice lady who’d overheard me speaking English, approached me, and wanted to chat. She was here visiting family and trying to make a decision on whether she and her husband should make the move to Panama. She’s Panamanian and her husband is from the U.S. She leaned towards me, and with all seriousness asked, “Are you happy?”

I immediately started talking about Panama For Real, of course, and what I’m doing. I gave her my card.

“But are you happy?” she asked again.

I then explained that I love Panama and would love it even more if I were a little more financially stable and that I, personally, preferred a life outside of the city...

“...And are you happy?”

After the third time hearing the same question, I realized I wasn’t doing a very good job of answering it. That got me thinking. What is happiness in Panama?

This view from Isla Taboga could make many people happy

At that point, I had to adjust my train of thought. What was she truly asking? See, she was mostly concerned about healthcare in Panama. She and her husband are both over the age of 60 and have a real concern when it comes to healthcare and insurance. I asked if they had a decent income to retire on and she said that that wasn’t a problem at all. She wants to live in the city, but her husband doesn’t. He’d rather live out in the interior (sounds a lot like my story). Her husband doesn’t want to move to Panama until they’ve discovered realistic insurance options, since Medicare doesn’t apply in Panama.  

I could tell right then that my answer would never suit her because her idea of happiness was altogether different from mine.

And it reminded me of the questions asked in the online forums. Everyone wants to know if everyone living here is happy. Are we content with our new lives in Panama?

Well, that’s difficult to answer because everyone moves to Panama for his or her own reasons and before you move here, you need to figure out your true reasons for wanting to leave home, because if you don’t, you may come here and find your retirement dreams unfulfilled.

This is my happiness in Panama

So why are you wanting to move overseas in the first place and then, why Panama? Here are a few reasons others want to try Panama. Maybe you fall into one of these categories or maybe you have an entirely different reason for wanting to base your new life here. 

Are you trying to escape the government? 

This is a serious question because many people want to move to Panama because they think they’ll never have to answer to the U.S. government again. They’ve heard Panama is a tax haven and they’ll be safe operating a business here without the hassle of reporting in back home.

That’s not the case. You need to understand that. I’ll save the specifics for the tax specialists, but Panama is no longer a tax haven. And you will need to pay taxes on money earned in Panama, if you’re still a U.S. citizen (of course there’s the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion if you qualify) but in some ways, living here can be even scarier than living in the U.S. because you never know when some new form or procedure will pop up that affects us here in Panama.

Beautiful, but not a tax haven

If you live a simple life and play by the rules, you should be okay.

Did you hear that Panama is an easy place to run a business? 

It can be, especially if you’re planning to start an online business. However, let me just rant for a second and say that, if your plan is to move to Panama, open a business, then pay very low salaries to your Panamanian workers, while expecting them to perform as if they’re being paid top dollar, you shouldn’t come to Panama. I’ll write more about this in a separate post, but it’s the foreigners moving to Panama and treating Panamanian workers like crap that are giving the rest of us a bad name.

So again, when thinking about happiness, what does that mean? If it means sitting back and relaxing while paying $3 per hour to skilled workers while they run your construction company (and you do everything in your power to avoid paying vacation, holidays, and other entitlements), please don’t bring it to Panama. Find that happiness someplace else.

Happiness (Estefania winning a major Toyota art contest)

If, however, you plan to open a business and pay the workers a fair wage and you plan to train them on customer service and treat them with respect, Panama can be a wonderful place to run a business. Yes, before the comments come streaming in, of course there’s red tape and bureaucracy issues to deal with, just like in the U.S. You just have to be patient, and again, play by the rules.  

Are you looking for a better quality of life? 

You could definitely find this in Panama. But what do you mean by a better quality of life? This is something you really have to think about. The grass is pretty green here in the tropics, but I have to tell you, sometimes it seems even greener on the well-manicured front lawns of some of the suburban homes I see in Facebook photos. From what I’ve seen, some of you appear to be leaving a pretty good life behind. Make sure you fully think about what you’re preparing to do.

Happiness (spending time with the kids...and even more kids)

Life in Panama is relaxed and wonderful; the pace may be slower, the air may be fresher, the people may be friendlier, rent may be cheaper (out in the interior anyway), and your skin may get tanner, but it’ll probably be hotter, the traffic will be thicker (in the city), your shopping options will be fewer (you can still shop online), the mosquitos will be buzzier (I think I just created a word), and communication will be harder.

"Knowing is half the battle" --GI Joe

Panama is an amazing place and you can definitely have a great life here. So dream about the good you've read about, and prepare yourself for the challenges, to be mentally prepared for what this new life really means.

Are you trying to escape winter? 

Yeah, you win on that one. You’ll never see snow again, but just make sure you truly don’t want your 4 seasons, because Panama has 2, really hot and really hot and wet (unless you’re in the mountains). 

It's even sun and palm trees in the city

And if you find yourself missing cooler temperatures, just take a quick trip to Boquete, Volcan, Cerro Punta, Cerro Azul, El Valle de Anton, Sora…you get the point. Mountain towns can provide a quick reprieve from the constant heat.

Are you looking for a better place to raise a family? 

I’m raising my family here in Panama, and I have to say that I think Panama provides an atmosphere that is more conducive to creating a strong family unit than most places in the U.S. I said most places. The Duggars seem to be doing fine with their 19 kids (or is it more now) wherever they live, lol.

Happiness (big family parties)

Panamanians are very family-friendly. It’s all about familia here and that’s something different form what I experienced in the U.S. My family was very spread out. Here it seems much more normal to have big Sunday gatherings. When my daughters had their first communions last month, the house was crowded afterwards, and several family members wanted to give a speech about how proud they were or about the importance of the decision my daughters made that day. It was beautiful. Family values are taken very seriously here and that’s something I’m excited about.

Are you trying to make your retirement income stretch? 

I’ve written several times about the cost of living in Panama and I’ll say again that life in Panama City is no longer cheap. It’s just not. Yes, you can get lucky and find an affordable apartment downtown, but are you going to have the place long term? If you’re able to afford a life in a place like Punta Pacifica, Punta Paitilla, Marbella, Bella Vista, Costa del Este, or outside of the city in places like Panama Pacifico, you’ll be living a luxurious life. Even areas of the city like El Cangrejo, El Carmen, Obarrio, and San Francisco could provide you with a nice living, but again, those neighborhoods aren’t cheap.

Costa del Este isn't cheap

Life outside of the city is much more affordable. Even in the expat-friendly places like Coronado, Boquete, Pedasi, and El Valle de Anton, you’ll be able to find a rental or a place for sale for what may be less than what's on the market in the U.S. or in any other country. I say may because I have no idea what the costs are in your home country.

However, if you look to places like Penonomé, Chitre, Santiago, Aguadulce, Las Tablas, Volcan, and even David, you’ll probably find that the costs are much less than what you’re used to paying. In Panama, depending on where you’re looking, rent can be as low as $300 per month (maybe even lower) or as high as $4,000 per month and up. 

You'll spend much less in a town like Las Tablas

So, you can make your retirement income stretch, but you need to be realistic with your funds. I get the questions like the following all the time: “Where can I live that’s not too far from the city, with gorgeous beach views, where I can rent a big house with a big yard, where the people speak English, shopping is great, the restaurants are fabulous, and a hospital is within walking disntance…for $400 per month rent? More than likely, that’s not gonna happen. You’ll have to be a little more flexible if you really expect to stretch your retirement income.

What it all boils down to

None of these may be your reason for wanting to leave your home country. Maybe you’re just a Roberto Duran fanatic, maybe you have always wanted to grow your own coffee or veggie garden, or maybe you have a thing for really big canals. I don’t know.

Happiness (weekend escapes with my wife...whenever we can)

In the end, I explained to my new friend at the clinic that happiness is subjective. I would be happy being able to support my family while sipping sweet tea on a wrap around porch (the house in the movie Best Little Whorehouse in Texas comes to mind) while watching my kids jump back and forth through the long, narrow sprinkler (you remember the one we used to play in when we were kids, the one that shoots the water up like a wall and we’d try to block the water from coming out of the little holes with our toes, but it tickled, so we’d squeal and jump back…sorry random thoughts again). I think I’d love that.

Happiness (taking the kids on their first Metro train ride)

To my new friend, happiness is a life in the city, where she can be close to her family and all the things she remembers from her youth, while it sounds like her husband would enjoy a retirement a little closer to what I have in mind.

Even if I answered her, “Yes, I am extremely happy in all possible ways.” That does not mean that she’d be happy here or that her husband would be.

I explained to her, “Look, you are Panamanian, which makes this move a lot easier. Some people move here with no ties at all; no family, no friends, and no contacts. For someone with connections here, this move wouldn’t be much different from a move out of one state and into the next in the U.S. or from Ontario to Quebec.”

I’m asked so many questions about retiring to Panama. People spend years studying this place, trying to decide if it's right for them. I don’t want anyone to think it’s just a walk in the park. You’ll face a lot of challenges here, just read the recent Facebook group complaints (and arguments). But if you've spent 5 years researching Panama and you’re still not ready to pull the trigger, think of it like this. How many people do you know who’ve said they won’t have a baby until they’re more financially stable? Then when money’s good they say they want to buy a car before they have a little one. Then they want a bigger house. It never ends until one day, after a few too many margaritas, they slip up and just have a baby.

Planning a baby or at least the right time to have one doesn’t really work, not for most people. If you want to have a baby, you just have a baby, and everything else will fall in place around it. Usually, when someone has a baby, they wonder why they didn’t do it sooner.

All I’m saying is, you may never have all your ducks in a row (man I’m using clichés like crazy). So think about why you want to make the move. Decide if happiness is going to be here. 

Don’t sever all ties to your home country. It’s definitely a good idea to keep a bank account open there and it’s always a good idea to rent here in Panama first, so rather than move everything you own, maybe (if you can afford it) you just put some things in a storage unit. Then, if it doesn’t work out, and Panama just isn’t what you thought, it’ll be a little easier to go home.

And one last thing, don’t listen to all the bullies who write about the people who come here, last a few months or a few years, and leave. I see that all the time too. Some of the grumpy folks who stick around like to rub it in peoples’ faces that they couldn’t hack it and returned home. Hack what? This is a hallmark we’re talking about, a serious move, a life-changing event. Try Panama, don’t give up easily, but in the end, if it doesn’t work out for you, no sweat. Do something else. If you wanted to move to Texas, would you care if a few people were ranting online about how so many people move to Texas and wuss out and head back to South Florida?  I wouldn’t. The truth is, the person saying that moved to Panama at one point, from someplace else, and it turned out he liked it. What if he didn’t?

And you’ll also see a lot of people making comments like, “I don’t want anymore gringos moving here.” What’s that all about? How selfish is that? We all deserve a chance at finding happiness, either in our home country, or abroad, so let’s take everyone else out of the equation and figure out how to create our own personal happiness in Panama.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. if you’re wondering how much I spent at the clinic…$14 (without insurance). Took his brother the next day and spent $32 (consultation plus an injection as he had a high fever and needed an antibiotic).

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